In May 2021, I took my first trip abroad since COVID. I traveled to the small island of Caye Caulker in Belize for a five-day trip. Dubbed as the backpacker island, I thought it’d be the perfect destination for a solo adventure. I was thrilled to experience the excitement of travel again and to see a new country after not being able to for so long.
The morning that I left, a Slack message from work came up on my phone prior to me turning off my notifications. Someone had sent a Burning Man video in a thread where we suggest videos to repost on our social channels. At the time, I thought nothing of it. But then a few more things started happening that seemed all too coincidental…
I arrived on the island in the late afternoon. I checked into my hotel and ventured into the centre of town to find some dinner. After eating, I decided I would try going out. I hadn’t traveled in so long and I had been quite anti-social due to COVID, so I was actually feeling a bit nervous about going out on my own. I’d traveled the world solo and normally this would not phase me, but after so many months of keeping to myself and close friends only, the thought of having to interact with strangers was a bit daunting.
As I was nervously walking down the street wondering which bar I should try my luck at, some old dude called out and tried to get me into this bar. It didn’t really look like my kind of scene from the outside, so I politely declined. But then he said, “C’mon, hey, are you a Burner?” He had my attention now. I turned around and said, “Yes, how did you know?” We chatted about Burning Man briefly, as you do, and I decided that this was indeed my sign to go into this bar.
The evening turned out perfect. Not overly social, but just social enough, as if to ease me back into human interaction. Just enough to remind me that if I just be myself and go with the flow, the events of the trip would unfold themselves. This was an important lesson that I learnt at my first Burn.
The next day, I rented myself a bike and rode out with no plan. There are no paved roads on Caye Caulker, only sand roads. The locals are super friendly here, everyone greets you as you pass by. Some even ride by while singing or wailing at absolutely no one in particular. I had flashbacks of riding out on the playa. It felt just like at Burning Man.
I rode past some guy sitting in an interesting looking chair made of wood. He waved me over and I seized the opportunity. We chatted for a bit and upon parting ways he told me to say hi to the coconut-selling guy at the end of street, which I did. One thing led to another and the next thing you know I was riding on the back of a golf cart across the island with new friends. The people I met that day led to more new connections and they all became my group of friends for the duration of the trip. It was all rather effortless, just like what I’d experienced at Burning Man!
The next day, I followed a hand-painted sign on the street to The Old Salt Gallery – a small gallery of work by Matty Dreadlock, and old hippie artist who’s been traversing the Caribbean and playing reggae the majority of his life. He had quite a few interesting stories to share. Just the kind of fascinating character you'd encounter at Burning Man.
Throughout the trip I basically just kept coming across things that had a relation to Burning Man, in one way or another. One day, I decided to go on an adventure to the other side of the island. I came across a mangrove pet garden, where you were instructed to plant your own mangrove tree. The participatory aspect made it a very Burning Man-esque project.
Later on, I literally found an area of mud that looked like the playa - just take a look at the photo!
Countless other smaller details contributed to this underlying narrative - the wood-constructed bars lit with hanging string lights, the hand painted signs, the way someone stopped to help me when my bike chain came off… I even met a guy that built his own boat! Very Burning Man DIY, self-reliance mentality. Everywhere I went, random people stopped to talk to me, or I’d run into someone I already knew, then a new adventure would start. There was no need to plan anything because on my way to something, something else would transpire, just like at Burning Man!
On one of my last nights, a new friend was telling me that she was experiencing some really odd synchronicities on the island. Anyone who’s been to Burning Man knows that Burners LOVE to talk about synchronicities that happen on the playa. And well, this was a synchronicity in and of itself!
The story wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention that I was stoned for a lot of the trip. Almost everywhere you go, someone is rolling a joint (hey, it’s the Caribbean), so this slightly altered state added to the Burning Man feel too.
Anyways, whether or not I am assigning too much meaning to random events of the trip, I felt like if there was a lesson in all of this, it was that I needed to bring the festival mentality back into my everyday life. I needed to be more open to meeting new people, going with the flow, and allowing one opportunity to lead to another. Prior to this trip, I was craving new connections, but felt that putting in the effort was a waste of time, since the town I live in is so transient. I realized I needed to just go for it, because you really never know what new connections can transpire.
Caye Caulker somehow reminded me of that Burning Man magic, without actually being at Burning Man, during a time when I probably needed it most. I’m super grateful to have met all the wonderful people on this island that helped me come to this realization.
Here are a few more photos from the trip that I really like:
This is the DIY sailboat I mentioned above, built by Rootsman.
We're on our way to Burning Man.
We're driving in a van as fast as we can.
Gotta get to this mystical land.
Just keep on moving while speakers jam.
We got the gear packed up and we're ready to go.
Even got Lucy past the five O.
Silly fucker at the boarder didn't even know.
Really glad I didn't have to stick mine in the back door.
Pulses of excitement come over us.
Gotta be God, in spaghetti monster we trust.
A few of us have lists of things to do we must.
Hopefully none of the intentions bust.
Just as the scenery started to morph.
Nalgene was part of an incident with the side door.
Full speed ahead Nalgene smashes into the floor.
Breaks and reverse I ran and grabbed him... Jess' tears no more.
In Wyoming there was a sign that tickled our desire.
A promise of a canyon... a canyon of fire
This was the first canyon there were no canyons prior.
This was not a good place for your average nitrous buyer.
And so we continue on a mission through the hills.
A mission through giant windmill fields.
In awe of the beauty all eyes are peeled.
The horizon doesn't even look real.
We ended our journey after three nights.
We saw so many beautiful sights.
Camped in some canyons with no camping rights.
Man were we glad we didn't take a flight.
The last night was spent in a party backyard.
Really nice to use the amenities after going so far.
One last trip to the local Wal-Mart.
And we were ready to hit the hippie festival of art.
The next day was spent in a line.
The first day we spent with others with like minds.
More stopping than going most of the time.
This is where we indulge in the Playa part of the rhyme.
As we entered the place to set the man a blaze.
We were given hugs warm and full of love, what a welcoming place.
Full of bright lights and fire, this night our hearts were raised.
This was what we had been waiting for, for over 220 days.
For those who don't know BM is a festival of art.
And let me tell you minds explode right from the start.
Massive installations and booming art carts.
Full of things that you interact with and they just touch your heart.
At the man burn you can't buy or sell.
It's a place with no currency, this I tell.
Yet constantly you are giving and receiving, ordinary society we dispel.
Never in need of anything the playa provides just as well.
When all is done the city goes up in flames.
Including the giant man and the temple... fucking insane.
Fireworks spark and fire dancing far from tame.
Shit so mind blowing it makes you forget your name.
Life on the playa is not like home.
Days are hot and nights chill the bones.
Dust storms make it necessary to find shelters in domes.
The harshest of all when deep playa you roam.
Exodus came quick after what seemed like a flash.
Another bunch of hours in line, mind and body mashed.
Back to the base in a house close to Reno we crashed.
Some time to reset and jump in the bath.
Time to start the journey to Toronto.
But we're not taking the same route as we took here of this we know.
We're going a little further south and through Colorado.
Gonna get some legal weed for sho.
But first to see the arches in southern Utah yo!
The first stop was to see ovens for coal.
Really they looked like huge upside down bowls.
This was where the process started for brass to be sold.
A sad place for Mother Nature of this we know.
A sad place for all the lost tree souls.
We hiked some arches in a national park.
The sights were awesome and the shade was dark.
Now we have our arches check mark.
I took a bath in the sink, no more smelly Andrew Clark.
The next state was Colorado where the weed has been freed.
So we stopped at a few dispensaries.
We drank some juice and ate some brownies.
Legalization is a beautiful thing indeed.
We pulled up to the boarder in our big dusty steed.
The officer gave us one look and pointed to a separate area and said proceed.
He said he needed to verify our declarancy.
They ripped apart our stuff but nothing they see.
So we left this place three weeks ago.
And now we're back with a new home to know.
The four of us have done a lot but most important we grow.
And this is a story of how we burn, yagga yo!
If you live in the Greater Toronto Area, Veld and Digital Dreams are household names when it comes to summer music festivals. While these types of commercial festivals are a great party, they don't offer the attendee much more than that.
Most aren't aware that there are quite a few alternative, underground festivals, within reasonable driving distance of Toronto. They are known as transformational festivals and they are called that for a reason. You wont see any big names at these festivals, nor will you find that 'mainstream EDM' sound. This is because the main emphasis is not just on the musical lineup; it's also about community, art, and self-expression. Like any commercial festival, they each include stages, music, and dancing, but you will also experience a whole lot more!
The Om Reunion Project has been running this week-long festival since 2005. As a result, it is very well organized and there is a strong sense of community present. If there is one festival you make it to this summer, I would recommend this one!
"Om Reunion Project: Solstice is a yearly gathering of creative forces to celebrate the longest day of the year... aimed to inspire creativity and celebrate life. Camp, share, learn, eat, dance, laugh and love. Come with an open mind and dare yourself to pARTicipate in every way you can. We all bring something special, we all volunteer and we all contribute to create something magical."
Located in Saint-André-Avellin, Quebec, about a 5 hour drive from Toronto, Valhalla Sound Circus is a great way to spend a weekend!
"Valhalla Sound Circus (VSC) is a non-profit cultural event that evokes an environment of free expression by combining a plethora of live musical performances with numerous visual art installations devoted to unifying and strengthening the bass music community. The communitarian spirit helps encourage participants to get to know each other, inspiring people to highlight their individualism while celebrating together."
Eclipse is located in Quebec, just outside of Ottawa. The festival is most well known as a psytrance gathering, but over the years, has expanded to include other forms of electronic music.
"Eclectic programming will include over 20 international artists and 100 North American artists on 3 electronic-music stages (psychedelic trance, techno, and ambient/downtempo/dub) in futuristic decors and immersive visuals. You’ll also find a rest and healing area offering holistic care and a space for workshops and conferences. Come experience new connections, meet new people and share conscious experiences in a parallel universe!"
Playground is a newer and smaller festival, but don't let this discourage you! You don't need a crowd of 50 000 people to have fun. Attending a smaller festival can provide a more intimate experience and a chance to get to know others on a deeper level.
"PLAYGROUND is about music and art, but more importantly it's about the strong community atmosphere and amazing collection of playful individuals."
Also located in Quebec, just outside of Ottawa, Alweezgrooven is an electronic music, art, and wellness festival that boasts an amazing outdoor location, psychedelic chillout area, total visual experience, workshops (poi, hula hoop, bondage...), Chinese lantern lighting ceremony, healing/recharging (reiki, meditation, yoga...), as well as the expected camping, stages, and amazing music.
Hosted by alienInFlux and Promise, both well known event promoters in the Toronto underground scene, Harvest is always a great way to end off festival season. The festival has been running for over 15 years, and the organizers do an excellent job of providing a fully immersive experience.
"The rolling hills, waters, sculptures and forests of Midlothian Castle is our place to gather and celebrate season’s change by the fire, under the stars and on the dance floor as we kiss summer goodbye."
Whether you are looking to experience something new, or simply wanting to dance to something other than Avicii and Calvin Harris, I highly recommend trying out one of these transformational festivals. I guarantee it will alter your perception of what a festival can be. If you haven't already, please take a look at my post Music Festival vs. Transformational Festival, to learn more. Happy festivaling!
Too often do people group music festivals and transformational festivals into the same category. Although there are similarities, there are also some very distinct differences, and these differences can provide an attendee with quite a different experience.
Ever since attending my first festival back in 2011, festival culture has become a large and influential part of my life. I went to Burning Man for the first time and my mind was blown. What I experienced completely changed me and shaped who I am today. Years later, I've attended countless music festivals and transformational festivals. I've seen first hand what makes them very different and feel very passionate about educating other festival-goers about these differences so that they can have more meaningful festival experiences.
History of Festivals
The concept of music festivals dates back to ancient Greece. In essence, a music festival is a series of musical acts or concerts organized around a central theme, most commonly musical genre. Some well known modern day examples are Coachella, Glastonbury, and Tomorrowland.
Over the past couple decades, a new style of festival has emerged. The term transformational festival was coined by Director and Writer Jeet-Kei Leung. He presented the concept to the world at a TEDx Talk in Vancouver in 2010:
Jeet-Kei Leung also went on to direct and host The Bloom Series, a documentary webseries on the emergence of transformational festival culture. The series is now being evolved into as a 12-part documentary series for television.
There are many elements which distinguish the two types of festivals. I will elaborate on the six which I have found to be the greatest differentiators based on my personal experience:
1. Participant vs. Spectator
The main concept of a music festival is simple: you pay money for a ticket that allows you to see musical artists perform on a stage. You are mainly attending as a spectator. Yes, you can dance, and there may even be other smaller events going on at the festival that you can choose to participate in. But the majority of people who are there have come to see their favorite bands or DJ's play. The focus is on the lineup of performers, not on you.
This is not the case at a transformational festival. Yes, the music, stages, and dancing certainly play a large part, but there is much more emphasis on other aspects of the festival. People don’t only attend to hear music and dance. There is often a schedule of workshops that are put on by attendees. There is interactive artwork that was created with participation in mind. In general, if you have any sort of talent, no matter how random it may be, you are free to express it. Attendees are also encouraged to dress however they please, making everyone something to spectate. The fact that everyone is considered a participant truly helps to creates a sense of community.
Of course, some of these aspects apply to music festivals as well. Music festivals today are realizing that festival-goers want more than just the music. They want an immersive experience. This is why more and more music festivals are including participatory elements like interactive artwork and other activities. However the primary focus continues to be the lineup - the artists that people have come to see play live.
There is something wonderful about walking around a transformational festival and knowing that everything you see - the decor, artwork, stages, lights, lasers, costumes, etc. - has been brought or made by other people just like you, by people who care to contribute to festival. At certain transformational festivals this even includes the musical artists. Some require performing DJ's to buy their ticket and finance their trip. They are not being paid to perform, there is no VIP treatment, DJ's aren't the new rockstars at these festivals, which brings me to my next point...
These corporations are for-profit businesses. They exist to make money and to grow and expand in order to make even more money. They partner with other companies for mutual benefit. There is most likely a certain brand of alcohol sponsoring a music festival or a certain pop drink. Basically, any company who wants to promote themselves to the festivals demographic will pay the event corporation to setup a brand activation on the festival grounds. "[In 2013], some 447 brands played a role in 300 music festivals worldwide." (M. Sebastian, Advertising Age)
Transformational festivals tend to operate a bit differently. Many of these festivals are grassroots and are organized by non-profit organizations. Some have actually started off simply as gatherings amongst like-minded friends and have expanded over the years into something greater. Many have few full-time staff, if any, and rely heavily on volunteers to keep the festival running year after year. The price of your ticket primarily goes towards renting the land, logistics, maybe a few art grants, and perhaps the salary of a few individuals, but no one is making millions.
Some transformational festivals allow for independent vendors to be present on site. Others operate on a total gifting economy, meaning that nothing is sold at the festival (with a few exceptions, ice and food for example). Everything one can acquire is either traded or given as a gift. This means that all attendees must come prepared with everything they need to survive throughout the festival. Burning Man and other Burner events is the most well-known example of this. Living in a gifting economy was one of the things I found most spectacular at my first Burn. The feeling of a complete stranger coming up to you and handing you a fresh mango, a cold beer, or a handmade necklace, then leading to a fruitful conversation, and possibly a new friendship, it what it's all about. A non-capitalist economy is a breeding ground for genuine human interaction.
3. Workshops and Events
Most music festivals do not offer workshops, as they expect attendees to relax and recover during the day when none of the headlining artists are playing. However, workshops and other events play an integral role in transformational festivals. These can range from almost any topic you can think of, but most often fall into some of these categories: spirituality (yoga/meditation, chakra balancing, discussions on new paradigm topics, etc.), performance (hoop lessons, open mic, talent show, etc.), visual art (body painting, friendship bracelet weaving, make your own tutu, etc.), sexuality (BDSM parties, orgasm demos, speed dating, etc.), and completely random (naked Twister, "the art of hugging", human carwash, etc.)
The wonderful thing about workshops and events is that they can be put on by anyone, people just like you! This directly correlates to the participant vs. spectator element. Many have an application process or callout for workshop leaders prior to the event. If you have something you are passionate about or would like to see something happen at the festival, the festival most likely wants to hear from you!
Participating in a workshop is a great way to gain some sort of knowledge that you can take back into the real world. It is also a simple way to meet others and have fun! Workshops and events definitely add to the sense of community fostered at transformational festivals.
Authorities are responding to these incidents by throwing more police, more searches, and tighter security at music festivals. Simply put, they are responding the wrong way. They are trying to stop drug use all together rather than acknowledging that it is going to happen no matter what. In the US, there are laws in place that discourage event companies from allowing harm reduction groups at festivals. As a result, some festivals "have banned everything from drug-testing kits to to drug information booklets to kandi bracelets in their efforts to not come across as fostering an environment for druggies." (M. Lhooq, Vice) These are exactly the types of tactics that would help prevent negative incidents.
Drug use is integrally weaved into festival culture, whether you like it or not. At Boom Festival, a harm reduction group called Kosmicare puts it best:
In most events across the world, substances are prevalent. The Boom has the responsibility to take care of the Boomers, on site substance testing facilities aim at minimizing the negative effects of substance abuse… never use and abuse. By respecting your body and your mind, you also respect your soul."
Many transformational festivals share the same philosophy and employ the same tactics that Kosmicare does. For example, free testing, and having a safe space equipped with individuals trained to assist those having a psychedelic crisis. Some also have people volunteering as rangers or vibe patrol. These individuals are identifiable throughout the festival and are able to assist with any incidents they may come across. They are much more approachable than law enforcement would be, to someone with a drug-related issue.
One of best example of harm reduction I have witnessed was at Solstice Festival. A safe space called C.A.L.M was setup on the outskirts of the festival for those needing a break from it all, or those having a crisis. Every stage had easily accessible and free water. Vibe patrol was present and would periodically hand out snacks to everyone on the dance floors. And going beyond drug-related harm reduction, there were stations throughout the festival equipped with free gum, sunscreen, bug spray, condoms, an emergency walkie-talkie… basically everything a festival-goer would need.
In general, some music festivals tend to give off a "let's get FUCKED UP" vibe - a mentality that leads to attendees not caring about what they are ingesting or how much they are ingesting, which then leads to negative drug-related incidents. Transformational festivals are about more than just "getting fucked up".
5. Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is a set of principles that promote environmental conservation and sustainability. In a festival context, it basically means clean up after yourself.
Transformational festivals generally encourage attendees to respect the land that the event is held on. Because many are organized on a grassroots level, no one may be getting paid to clean up afterwards. Encouraging the leave no trace policy is the best and easiest way for clean up to occur.
The image to the right was taken at Glastonbury Festival in 2014. The grounds are often left looking like a garbage dump. Most music festivals do not encourage leave no trace. And if they do, it is widely ignored. Festival-goers paying large amounts of money for their ticket expect someone to clean up after them. Festival organizers know this and thus a cleanup crew is employed... which is fine, if it works for them.
However, I feel that leave no trace adds to the sense of community that is more prevalent at transformational festivals. If you encourage the fact that everyone is a participant, that everyone has something to contribute, that we are all in this together, attendees are more likely to help do their part at the end.
6. General people vibe
This is perhaps the most important factor for me personally and also the most subjective.Generally, I find the types of people who attend transformational festivals easier to connect with. They are friendlier, more loving, caring, and open. This attitude helps sets the tone of the festival.
I am not saying people who I have met at music festivals are not all of the above. And I am certainly not saying that everyone at transformational festivals fits the bill. But overall, I have found the crowds at transformational festivals different than at your average music festival. And it’s not hard to understand why.Many people come to these events looking for more than just a party or a hedonistic escape. They come looking to connect with others and with themselves on a deeper level. The come with intention, they come to create. But a lot of them also come to party. It's all about balance. At a transformational festival you are more likely to find those who are there for a wider range of reasons.
Below is a film I shot at several different transformational festivals over several years. I hope the visuals and interviews with attendees help to better illustrate the points above.
There are many other factors which differentiate the two types of festivals. These are merely the six I find most distinguishable based on my personal experiences. Am I saying a music festival cannot be transformational, or a transformational festival cannot be musical? No. There is certainly a grey area; many festivals are gradually blurring the lines between the two. Is one type of festival better than the other? That is up to you to decide. If you want to go see your favorite artists perform, dance, and party, then there is nothing wrong with attending a music festival. However, transformational festivals are called that for a reason. The combination of the above factors, and the sense of community that they help foster, sets these types of festivals apart. The transformation is truly something you must experience for yourself.
Regardless, the single most important factor in any festival experience is YOU - your attitude, your thoughts, and your decisions. Happy festivaling!
These are the figures which describe my journey from Toronto to Black Rock City, back in 2011. And it was one hell-of-a journey...
For those of you unaware, Black Rock City is a temporal city located in the middle of the desert in Nevada. It is where the annual Burning Man Festival takes place. I had known about Burning Man for quite some time, and I knew this would be the year I would finally attend. However, none of my friends (at the time) were really into it, let alone had even heard of it. But that wasn't going to stop me from going. I searched online and eventually found 3 others from Toronto, all in the same boat as me.
We met up in person a few months before, which went well, and so at the end of August we were off! The plan was to take Aaron's (aka HippieVanMan's) newly purchased off of Craigslist, 1979 Volkswagen Kombi, to the playa. As if our ride wasn't sick enough, Aaron had a psychedelic paint job done on the van just days before we left. Although there wasn't enough time to complete it, the van still looked pretty awesome.
We departed 5 days before the burn. Needing to cover roughly 4000km, which translates to 40 hours of driving, we we're prepared for full 8-10 hour days in the vehicle. Joining us for the drive was an RV full of 5 other virgin Burners like ourselves, led by one of Aaron's friends, Clay. All was going well, however roughly half way through the trip the van started experiencing some issues. We decided to pull in for the night at the nearest gas station and figure it out in the morning. Upon sunrise, we were faced with a dilemma: the van wouldn't start. And it just so happens that we were in the town of Buford, Wyoming, the smallest town in all of America. Buford's population is literally 1.
We all had a good laugh at the irony of the situation. But then it was time to figure out an action plan. Aaron called roadside assistance and had the van towed to the nearest larger town, in hopes of finding a mechanic. Unfortunately it was Sunday and almost everything was closed... but there was a Wal-Mart! The Wal-Mart carried a very affordable tow hitch, and so Aaron and Clay hitched up the van to the back of the RV, we all got into the RV, and we were off again.
The remainder of the ride became a mixture of games, laughs, discussions, crafts, naps, and general shenanigans amongst the 9 of us. The 8 hour line to get into Burning Man went by in a flash because we were all having so much fun. We all camped, hung out, and experienced the festival together. And at the end of the week, we piled back into the RV for the 5 day drive home (and the shenanigans continued).
They say everything happens for a reason. I'm so grateful that everything happened the way it did because this experience brought us together like no other. Out of the 9 of us, no one knew more than 1 other person. But by the end we were all like family.
My first burn was one of the greatest experiences of my life, but whenever I think back, I think about the ride there and back just as much as the actual festival. Breaking down in the smallest town in America might seem like a shitty situation, but in this case, it was the best thing that could ever happen.